FOR MANY, LIFE is a simple path. You grow up in a peaceful place unencumbered by the events happening around the world. You have dreams. You have plans. And a future begins to form. But sometimes we can’t avoid colliding with events far away.
Oscar and Fannie Winters had eight children — five girls and three boys. Oscar sharpened saws for loggers, so his work carried him around to various logging camps around Port Angeles. That’s where the children would play. It wasn’t unusual for their daughter Elsie to play hide-n-seek in empty buildings around the camp. Elsie appeared to be the more contemplative of the children. When others played house she would play Sunday school.
The Winters family moved into an old house which stood where Olympic Medical Center Hospital is now.
News from Europe was alarming and troubling. When Elsie started attending Roosevelt High School all these problems seemed so far away. It was a time when discovering boys was more important than European politics.
Elsie graduated from high school in 1936. In a display of independence she changed the spelling of her name from “Elsie” to “Elsye.” She told people it looked better. In reality she didn’t want to share her name with the cow used to advertise Borden’s Milk.
In 1940 Elsye enrolled at Seattle Pacific College. After a year she enrolled at Simpson Bible Institute in Seattle and graduated in 1943. Before graduation she met her future husband, Archie Mitchell. Archie was from Ellensburg and was working toward ordination into gospel ministry.
On Aug. 21, 1943, they were married in Port Angeles at the Free Methodist Church. Edwin Kerby officiated. The church building still exists at the corner of Eighth and Chase streets. Their honeymoon was a drive to New York state where they enrolled in a Christian Missionary Alliance school. After completing their schooling, they traveled back to Washington to work at a church in Ellensburg.
In early 1945 the Mitchells had the opportunity to lead a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Bly, Ore. It was a wonderful opportunity for a young pastor and his wife. Bly was a small community of 750. Not only was the church a place of worship, it was also a center of social activity. On May 5, 1945, Archie and Elsye took a group of older Sunday school students on a picnic to Gearhart Mountain. By this time Elsye was five months pregnant with their first child. Her pregnancy almost caused her to stay home. But that morning she felt better. This day, though, tragedy was hidden in the bushes.
Archie drove Elsye and five children to the picnic site and dropped them off. Then Archie parked the car. Elsye and the children were exploring the area when they came across a cylindrical metal object half buried in the brush. “Look what I found, dear!” were Elsye’s last words. An explosion occurred and Elsye and the five children were dead. This tragedy devastated the community.
Elsye’s obituary stated that she “was killed Saturday by an explosion in mountain country near Lakeview, Ore.” Her body was sent home to Port Angeles where a memorial service was conducted and she was buried in Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles.
A few weeks later Elsye’s sister, Thelma, traveled to Bly to go through Elsye’s things. Thelma remembered a large clothes basket that Elsye left full of clean clothes. Thelma also remembered seeing baby things, clothing patterns and printed flannel material. Elsye had also been saving war rations such as canned pineapple. She had planned to bake her favorite pineapple upside down cake. These small items seemed to hold the opportunities Elsye missed. Thelma later received Elsye’s cookbook, “The Searchlight Recipe Book,” as a keepsake.
Elsye’s obituary did not tell the whole story. There was so much more to this story.
Archie had stopped at that spot because a Forest Service crew was working on the road. So he let Elsye and the children out to wander toward Leonard Creek while he found a place to park. They could have walked past the object without seeing it. Many may already have. But their curiosity triggered a 15-kilogram high-explosive anti-personnel bomb.
They had found the remnants of a Japanese balloon bomb. The Japanese military had sent out around 9000 explosive and incendiary balloon bombs. The balloons were launched into what we now call the jet stream with the hope they would play havoc with American forests, farms and cities. Only a few hundred made it to the United States. Even so, there is no certainty that all these bombs were ever found.
This tragedy became a national emergency. By evening military officers met with the families to request their silence about the circumstances. The U.S. Government suspected the Japanese had started a new campaign to demoralize Americans. The first balloon was spotted in November 1944 and more followed. The government had issued a gag order to prevent Japan from realizing their program had any success.
The gag order added another layer to Archie’s grief. He grieved the loss of his wife and unborn child. But he was not allowed to disclose the cause of their deaths. This part of his sorrow had to remain secret.
The death of Elsye and the five children brought the government’s gag order to an end. On May 31, 1945, the Army and Navy issued a joint statement about the balloon bombs that was front page from coast to coast. People were warned of the hazards these balloons posed. By the time this statement was issued, the Japanese military had discontinued the campaign.
By 1947 Archie had remarried and they entered foreign mission work in December 1947. They helped operate a leprosarium in Ban Me Thout, South Vietnam. In 1962 the Viet Cong seized the city. On May 30, 1962, Archie and two other missionaries were kidnapped by the Viet Cong. The fog of war clouded their true fates. Reports of their medical expertise being used to treat the Viet Cong’s sick and wounded continued into 1969. They were never found.
Elsye’s final resting place is near the center of Ocean View Cemetery. Her grave marker has a special inscription: “In Memory of Elsie Winters Mitchell. The only adult civilian killed by an enemy instrument of war in the Continental United States during World War II.”
For many years flowers were placed on Elsie’s grave every Memorial Day. I think it would be wonderful if we, too, honored Elsye this upcoming Memorial Day.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].